Saturday, August 21, 2021

In Darwin's Room

What's happening, as I read In Darwin's Room, by Debora Greger (Penguin Poets, 2012), is the convergence of connections: 1) to the other books I've been reading, and 2) to myself, as has been happening all along, as I engage joyfully with poets and their work in August. When I encounter the phrase "ethereal pig" in Greger's poem in the voice of John Keats--he wants to feed on "the muddied blooms / of English spring!"--I flash on Billy Collins's sudden discovery of the heretofore unknown "constellation of the Pig" in the sky of his poem "Vocation," which also reminds me of the charming constellation poem in Molly Spencer's Hinge, "Portrait of Hometown as Constellation." As the poems and my impressions of them blend, the tenses in which I describe them may mix, so watch out.

The title, In Darwin's Room, made me think this would be a project book, all about Darwin and his journey on the Beagle. It isn't. There are Darwin poems, museum poems, travel poems, personal and far-reaching poems. Birds, bones, gardens, "the oldest shirt in the world," the Dark Ages, the Ice Age, art, classrooms, trees, flora. It's all here. Persona poems, where she speaks in the voice the moon, the wind, a Monet painting, winter, the rain, a rat, her personal self at various ages and stages, and, as mentioned above, Keats.

I connect to specific places referred to in these poems: Nebraska, Michigan, Florida. She lives part of the year in Gainesville, Florida, my childhood home (through kindergarten), and alligators turn up in her poems, which also made a big impression on me way back when. Ah, another connection: "sandhill cranes...who wintered in Florida" in Greger's poem "Musica Mundana." Sandhill cranes were part of my childhood and a recent visit to Kearney, Nebraska, as well as being referenced in Sandra Beasley's Made to Explode! (My head may explode, as they say.) I even lived in England for a year, and Greger goes there in this book and in her actual life, her bio tells me.

Greger's poem "The Later Martyrs" takes that deep dive that, yesterday in the blog, Billy Collins said poems should take (even when he chooses not to). From a childhood incident (broken bottle of ink at school, blood), she moves from innocence to "a Quaker and...a Buddhist monk" who "turn themselves / into flame instead of into prayer, / one in Washington, one in Saigon." That sad, brutal history flares up again.

And I was deeply moved by her "Elegy on the Far Bank," for her father. Stanza one really hit home:

     His taxes done, a garden planned,
     my father didn't want even a night
     in the hospital--then he lay his head back
     and drifted away from the doctor.

By stanza two, as implied here, he's dead, but at least "[f]or the first time in days he slept, / better than he had for years." My father, alive, is sleeping better these days, some days. Like hers, mine hates hospitals. Mine has given up planning and planting his vegetable garden and, I think, thanks to an extension, is still working on his taxes. But the connections keep on coming, with references to Russian olive and cottonwood trees. My brother was just visiting from California, and as we walked the yard at my parents' house we were remarking on where the Russian olive trees once stood. At a recent family gathering in Michigan in June, it was cottonwood season, snowing and drifting everywhere.

And then she takes a walk with her father: "We climbed the Horse Heaven Hills, / my dead father and I." Is he "[l]eft breathless // by his weakened heart?" No. But my father is, sometimes. And it turns out he is reading this blog. Hello, Dad.

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